Bob Bradley and Tactics: Set Pieces Make the Difference

Under Bob Bradley the USMNT has become reliant on set pieces for scoring and quite possibly more dependent on its center backs than any top 50 national team/photo from US Soccer

For all the criticisms of Bob Bradley’s tactics by commentators including myself, the continued success rate the United States enjoys on set pieces is remarkable. This is all the more remarkable when you consider the trouble the United States had scoring on set pieces in the 1999 to 2003 period after Eric Wynalda, Marcello Balboa and Alexi Lalas all outstanding in dead ball situations were off the national team. The resurgence of quality in these situations could not have come at a better time: It seems obvious that the United States does not have players with the on the ball skills or finishing ability to consistently score in the run of play. Or perhaps American managers do not know how to tactically put talented players like Landon Donovan in a position to succeed without relying on his dead ball skills.

If you eliminate the two matches against a completely outclassed Barbados team, six of the eight goals scored by the United States this year have been scored from set pieces. Of these six goals, four have been scored by the Center Backs, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra. In other words in matches against
competitive opposition, chances are the US will rely on set pieces to score and additionally the chances that a non striker or midfielder will be the difference maker is also high. This is because in Bob Bradley’s “bucket” system the idea is to absorb pressure and to selectively counter attack. The intent of counter attacking by the US since 2007 has been largely to create corner kicks or free kick opportunity rather than to actually place a shot on goal.

Tactically it is extremely risky to rely on this sort of play. The inability of American strikers to finish and American midfielder to hold the ball or create chances may be why Bradley feels such a scheme is necessary. Very few national teams with the sort of perceived talent the United States has plays such a strange tactical scheme. At the very same time, very few international managers have two center backs like Bocanegra and Onyewu at their disposal. While it can be argued that one or maybe both are actually liabilities on the defensive end, both are deadly accurate when receiving service in dead ball situations. Watching as much international football as I do, I must state that I don’t know of two other center backs in the world who score as many goals with as few opportunities. John Terry, Rafa Marquez and Juan have all scored goals for their nations, but they do not I would venture to guess score as often in limited opportunities as do the two US backs.

The reality of the situation is this: the United States may have superior or inferior talent to most of its opposition in CONCACAF. But in fact right now it does not matter because Bob Bradley feels he has found a formula that works: sit back for much of the match and then hit the opposition not with a classic counter attacking goal but on a corner kick or free kick which is often times inevitable in a match. Bringing up the two center backs who are both physical and athletic causes problems for CONCACAF sides with smaller and less athletic players. Until someone in CONCACAF can shut down Bocanegra or Onyewu in the area or prevent the US from getting a Landon Donovan, Eddie Lewis or DaMarcus Beasley set piece, Bradley is going to keep his tactics consistent.

6 thoughts on “Bob Bradley and Tactics: Set Pieces Make the Difference”

  1. Bradley truly has done wonders building the team from the defensive end of the field. The old adage in sports is defense wins championships is showing itself to be true again.

    I am proud to say that I saw the team win it’s first crown under Bradley with last years Gold Cup. Frankly at times during that Cup run I thought the defense was a nightmare. The pairing of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra has turned out to be a brilliant move and as qualifying becomes serious business they are a rock solid pair of defenders who as you point out Kartik have great talent on the offensive set pieces.

    Now,we do need scoring from the strikers and we have young players and 2010 is still over a year away and maybe just maybe are young guns of Adu and Altidore maybe to achieve what the defense has done. Lets hope!

  2. I agree in principle with what Kartik says, though I have to say that the US’ game plan of relying on set pieces to score goals seems a bit daft.

    Set pieces come about because of plays being made during the run of play. If a US player is fouled in a key position or the US earns a corner kick then good on them. When you are in position to score from a set piece, it means you’ve earned your way into scoring position.

    So to suggest that the offense is reliant on set pieces seems a tad unfair. It’s not unfair to say however that the offense has seemed bogged down under the Bradley regime and that goes completely to Bradley’s moronic insistence of playing two defensive midfielders. When you take away a potential attacking element to your offense (Adu, Dempsey or Donovan could be very useful in midfield from a diamond formation) you will naturally not have as many chances going forward than they do right now.

    For me, I’m glad the US is dangerous on set pieces. Set pieces are difference makers, especially in major competitions. Having the threat to score on set pieces is a major plus for the US.

  3. Honestly, the bucket is not going anywhere so the longer you, PB, DD, and everyone else simply accepts it the better.

    Honestly DD can talk smack, but would Adu have been effective at all against Guatemala or would he have been a turnover machine? You were much better than usual on Friday trying to refocus on the result and the venue which dictated certain tactics but your co-host is becoming unbearable. He is totally out of control. Seriously is Adu better than Dempsey or Beasley right now? I think not!

  4. This is an outstanding piece of writing and analysis of the US team.

    Tactically the US has a clear system and plan entering each match. Sometimes it doesn’t work but when people panicked after the losses to England and Spain the reality was the manager was trying to set the tactical structure while Capello and England were playing their best XI. Now comparing the fortunes of both nations you realize the US used that friendly for the right purpose while England was simply wasting the match in order to get a result so the papers could beat up on the “yanks.”

    It has now proven that the US entered those summer friendlies with the right philosophy knowing they needed at least a point out of Guatemala City. Getting three means the US is virtually qualified to the next round.

  5. I think Dave needs to learn how this world of ours works.

    Yes… Adu, Altidore, Guzan, and Edu have recently moved to new clubs.

    The situations are all different though.

    Adu: Loaned to Monaco, and heads right into our Olympic camp. He doesn’t even travel to Monaco until after we’re eliminated from the Olympics. He needs to go and get some training in with his team if he is to get any time on the field.

    Altidore: Sold to Villarreal before the Olympics. Only trains with Villarreal once or twice before the Olympics. He plays through the Olympics while still carrying a small knock that he needs to get over. He goes back to Villarreal, with the hope of integrating himself in the roster and earning playing time.

    Guzan: Sold to Aston Villa. He’s going to be the backup goalkeeper at best at Villa behind Friedel.

    Edu: Sold to Rangers. His work permit hearing wasn’t until Friday, so he couldn’t suit up for Rangers on Saturday. The first match he can play in for them is next weekend.

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